The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

By Merle Bertrand, Film Threat, October 1999

It was one of the oddest sights I've ever seen at a film festival: The Walt Disney Pictures logo on a festival film. Not Disney subsidiary Miramax, mind you, nor even convenient catch-all company Touchstone Pictures, but good old Uncle Walt Disney Pictures. What made this even more surreal was that this anachronistic logo preceded, "The Straight Story," directed by none other than David Lynch!

Now, I can think of many things that aren't normally associated with one another. Oil and water, for instance. Jerry Bruckheimer and art films. The Chicago Cubs and the World Series. But of all these things, surely the man responsible for "Eraserhead" and "Twin Peaks" making a G-rated film for the house that Mickey built has to be at the top of the all-time Odd Couples list. Based on a true story, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is an aging farmer with bad eyes, worse hips and the first inklings of emphysema. Still, when he receives news that his estranged brother Lyle has had a stroke, he decides it's time to make peace. Leaving his worried daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) behind, he stubbornly sets off to Wisconsin from his Laurens, Iowa home...on a lawnmower.

"The Straight Story" chronicles this journey; the places Alvin sees and the people whose lives he touches along the way. There are obvious similarities between "The Straight Story" and the Ernest Borgnine starrer "Abilene." Both, for instance, are films about aging farmers crossing the country on John Deere lawnmowers to visit stricken, estranged brothers. Yet Farnsworth's gently unflappable dignity as Alvin, guaranteed to bring a lump to your throat, is much more soothing than Borgnine's cantankerous Otis.

And then there's the inescapable Lynch Factor. If ever there was a modern director around whom the tattered adherents of the auteur theory could rally, it would have to be David Lynch. Whether sick, twisted, grotesque, perverse, weird, odd or any combination of the above, his films all have a readily identifiable feel to them that's all too rare today. Which is why hard-core fans are likely to be left somewhat unsatisfied by "The Straight Story." Not only is the plot ultra simple and extremely linear, but he pretty much plays it straight with a minimum of "Lynchian" trademarks. But take heart, Lynchophiles, because this only makes those moments that do exist that much sweeter and all the more subversive. After all, not only does this G-rated Disney film demonstrate the man's range as a director, it gives him an opportunity to subtly stretch the conventions of the family film. He won't simply be preaching to the converted here. Sure, the kids may get a little antsy during the long, silent tracking shots but their parents will be so enraptured, they won't even notice the squirming brats.

Lynch lets a handful of scenes drag on, but with the most appropriate ending ever filmed, he damned sure knew when to end this movie. Filled with gorgeous photography and carried by Farnsworth's touching performance, "The Straight Story" is a true rarity; a film for the whole family that doesn't play like a nauseatingly sweet After School Special.


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© Mike Hartmann